How 'Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker' VFX Pro Crafted Carrie Fisher's Final Farewell

STAR WARS EPISDOE IX  THE RISE OF SKYWALKER - Carrie Fisher and Daisy Ridley - Publicity-H 2019
Lucasfilm Ltd.

Out of the 1,900 visual effects shots in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker that included epic lightsaber battles, hyperspeeds in space, undiscovered worlds and new creatures, it was the delicate work on the scenes with the late Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa that proved the most challenging.

To feature Fisher, who died from complications of a heart attack in December 2016 at age 60, in The Rise of Skywalker — the ninth installment of the saga that began with George Lucas' A New Hope in 1977 — meant that director J.J. Abrams and the Disney-Lucasfilm team had to go back to the cutting-room floor.

VFX supervisor Roger Guyett of Industrial Light & Magic explains that the team started by finding outtakes of Fisher, lensed during the making of 2015’s The Force Awakens and 2017’s The Last Jedi, the two previous films in the latest trilogy. "J.J. was very sensitive to the idea of a digital version of Leia. He felt that it was appropriate to have Leia in the story, but how do you do that?" says Guyett. "We assembled this enormous matrix of everything that she ever said and [co-writer] Chris Terrio essentially went through the footage and wrote her scenes based around the lines that were available, which is an incredibly complicated thing to do and really is a testament to how much [the filmmakers] believed in the approach."

Ultimately it was only Fisher’s face that was used for The Rise of Skywalker, and the effects wizards created Leia a digital hairstyle and body with an updated wardrobe.

"We wanted her to wear a different costume and have different hair, so we built a digital character out from her face," Guyett explains. "What that meant was the performance in her face was real. We changed two words that were said in the same sort of cadence, so you couldn’t really tell. As soon as you start messing around with it, you lose the integrity of those performances. J.J. didn’t want to do that."

Once the images of Leia were created, they had to be integrated into newly shot scenes with the other actors — a tricky process.

"You have to stage the scene; it’s much more complicated than I fully appreciated," the VFX supervisor says. "We used motion control a lot … and a double to try to figure out how the scene might play."

A similar approach was taken for a flashback that features young Leia and Luke training with lightsabers. The filmmakers found footage of the actors from the filming of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and combined those facial performances with digital bodies.

While Fisher’s Leia presented the biggest challenge, the VFX team also had to tackle the return of Ian McDiarmid’s evil Emperor Palpatine, a character long dead but resurrected in Rise of Skywalker as a decaying corpse.

Palpatine was crafted through a combination of practical effects, led by creature and special makeup effects supervisor Neal Scanlan, and the work of the digital effects team. Many shots involved filming McDiarmid, now 75, in prosthetics, as was done on the earlier movies, while in other scenes, Palpatine appears as a full digital double soaring above the ground.

Scanlan’s work is part of the fabric of the Star Wars universe, which has always incorporated practical effects, model structures and hand-built sets to bring a grounded feel to the galaxy far, far away.

A fun new addition to the franchise in The Rise of Skywalker is the tiny droidsmith Babu Frik. The leathery-faced creature, who wears a pair of goggles as he extracts information from C-3PO’s memory, was crafted as a 10-inch puppeted character with an animatronic head, operated by four puppeteers behind him, Guyett explains.

Babu’s high-pitched, laid-back one-liners have already earned him an avid fan following. Eat your heart out, Baby Yoda.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.